“You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations that you are driving away worshipped their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every leafy tree. You shall break apart their altars, you shall smash their pillars, and their sacred trees shall you burn in fire, their carved images shall you cut down and you shall obliterate their names from that place.” Deuteronomy 12:2-3
“He (Hezekiah) did what was proper in the eyes of the Lord, just as his forefather David had done. He removed the high places, shattered the pillars, and cut down the Asherah-trees.” Kings II, 18:3-4
Peluf gripped his grey beard as he sat on his stallion of the same color. He waited in the middle of the castle courtyard. His mounted troops entered through the arched stone gate, trotting loudly on the cobblestones, dispelling the early morning mist. The finest horsemen from the Jerusalem province had answered his call. Not his call. The new king’s call. Hezekiah son of Ahaz.
Peluf did not miss King Ahaz. He did not mourn the untimely death. His son, Prince – no, no longer Prince, but King, King Hezekiah was a different breed of man. Hezekiah was more like his grandfather, King Yotham. Both men of God. Hezekiah was untried though. A young man of twenty five years. Young and untried.
Ahaz on the other hand, that link between grandfather and grandson had been unlike either. Ahaz had embraced the local idol worship and dragged many of Israel with him. Peluf himself was ambivalent about idol worship. He was a career soldier – now commander of the King’s cavalry. He did as he was ordered whether he believed in it or not. Distasteful or not. It was usually distasteful.
King Hezekiah had declared himself on a mission. He was a firebrand with bright short red hair and a fiery long beard to match. Less than a month after his father’s death, Hezekiah proclaimed he would rid the land of idols. The veteran soldiers had laughed at the idea. The idols had stood since the days of Solomon son of David. The people, both Israelites and the ancient tribes loved their idols. For over two hundred years idols had graced almost every valley and every mountain of Canaan.
Peluf’s battalion was ready. Hezekiah had insisted on a majority of new recruits. It was clear Hezekiah wanted as many green soldiers as possible. He knew the older soldiers were cynical. Experienced, but still cynical. He hoped the new blood would turn the tide.
Peluf couldn’t recall the last time he had seen such energy amongst the King’s troops. The horses champed at their bits, eager to gallop. Young Hezekiah addressed the mounted battalion.
“We go today to cleanse the land,” Hezekiah declared from atop his white steed. “We must remove ourselves from the worship of these false gods. There is only one true God. And he is not of the handiwork of man. We must destroy the idols – all the idols. There must not remain a shred of their pollution in our land.”
The younger soldiers raptly followed Hezekiah’s words. Some of the older soldiers snickered quietly.
“Men, soldiers of Judea, grab your swords.” Hezekiah unsheathed his. “Any idol we encounter we must smash, destroy. If anyone gets in our way, we shall rid the world of them and their idols. We have given warning. We have given the blatant worshippers a chance. Any that stand in our way have brought a death sentence on their heads. I wish to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, but we shall not allow this evil worship any longer.”
Hezekiah raised his sword and trotted towards the gate and the front of the battalion. Peluf rode to the right of his new lord. “We march!” Hezekiah shouted. A hundred horses and their riders followed Hezekiah, all with raised swords.
The troop quickly reached the Valley of Geihinom. Hundreds of people were assembled in the valley. They were all Judeans. They clustered around dozens of idols spread out through the length of the valley. Thin wooden idols, fat clay idols and a few imposing stone idols stood out. Men, women and children of all ages stood around the idols. They had not believed Hezekiah’s threats.
“People of Judea,” Hezekiah called to them, sword still in hand. “Give up this worship, move away from this abomination or perish with it.”
An old woman, next to the idol closest to Hezekiah called back to him.
“Leave us alone. These are the gods of Israel. We shall die before forsaking them.”
“It is the Law of Moses that you have forsaken. How can you betray him and our God?” Hezekiah called out.
“Moses?” the old woman barked a laugh. “That was hundreds of years ago. What relevance does his Law have to our lives? He was a desert dweller, a nomad from a backwards era. We are sophisticated mountain folk. We need the gods of the mountains. It is you Hezekiah who is the fool. You should have followed in your father’s footsteps. King Ahaz knew the value of our gods.”
Hezekiah charged her and stabbed her through the stomach with his sword. He dismounted and smashed the large clay statue she had been defending. The broken pottery fell into the pool of blood oozing from the dead woman. The cavalry followed suit and attacked people and statues. Most of the people fled, now convinced that Hezekiah would carry through with the destruction. A few of the elderly did not move and stood bravely in front of their idols, protecting their gods. Others hugged the statues to depart this world together with them. Clay statues were smashed, wooden ones burned and stone ones defaced and broken. After a few hours the Valley of Geihinom became a wasteland of broken gods.
Peluf was pleased and impressed. He was pleased that his young soldiers had destroyed the idols efficiently. None of them showed bloodlust. Hezekiah’s orders had been to let the people run away. Only those standing by their false gods were to be struck down and that is what happened.
But he was mostly impressed with the young King. Hezekiah set his mind on this destruction and had thoroughly wiped out the idols in this stronghold of the false gods. The next target would not be so easy.
“To the Pillar of Baal,” Hezekiah shouted to his soldiers. “Let us make haste.”
Hezekiah’s army rode northeast. The green lush hills surrounding Jerusalem gave way to sparser, drier land. They followed the ancient road down towards Jericho. The thorny bushes showed themselves less frequently until they reached the Judean desert. All they could see were rolling, dead yellow hills. In the distance through the summer haze they could glimpse the palm trees around the broken walls of Jericho. To the south they saw the lip of the Sea of Salt, where nothing lived.
A hint of green peaked out from between two mountains. Hezekiah’s troops followed the trail entering a narrow valley. Chalky red sandstone formed a wall to their right and left. In the middle of the Wadi a stream of fresh water trickled through. Thick green vegetation hugged the stream. The troops cantered on either side of the stream raising a thick cloud of dust that filled the Wadi.
“Let us send scouts ahead and above, your Majesty,” Peluf gestured. “We will not take the Pillar as easily as the Valley and this Wadi is too easy to ambush.”
Hezekiah nodded his agreement, eyes looking up and ahead.
Peluf motioned to his captains. Three pairs of soldiers trotted forward. Each twosome had an older soldier paired with a younger one. One pair went further down the Wadi, the other two pairs scrambled up the sides of the Wadi to scout from above. The rest of the cavalry proceeded along the Wadi.
The pair that went down the Wadi returned less than an hour later. The younger soldier was panting, the older one, Shaku, scratched his short beard as they approached Peluf and Hezekiah.
“Report,” Peluf commanded.
“Your majesty, Commander Peluf,” Shaku bowed. “This Wadi spills out into an open plain facing the Pillar. There are perhaps a thousand people standing in front of the Pillar. They have been warned of our approach and the destruction in the Valley. They are prepared for battle.”
“Weapons?” Peluf asked.
“Axes, shovels, pitchforks and some rusty swords. There are a handful of archers too,” Shaku answered.
“Estimation?” Peluf asked.
“Most of them are on foot. We can defeat them, but we would suffer great losses.”
“Your Majesty?” Peluf asked.
“Is there an obvious leader?” Hezekiah asked the soldier.
“Yes, your Majesty. There was a priest of Baal in his white robe riding a horse in front of the crowd, warning them how the Davidic line was a threat to their lives. He is accompanied by armed guards.”
“I see. What do you suggest Peluf?” Hezekiah asked.
“If you still wish to attack, I would hit them with two columns. One straight on and the other hitting them from the west. Never corner your prey. If we can hit them hard and fast enough, perhaps they will flee towards the east. That way we can minimize losses on both sides. If they become desperate or hold fast there will be few people standing at the end, on either side.”
“We may have to risk it,” Hezekiah held on to his long red beard, “but I just had another thought. Let us call for a parley.”
“A parley?” Peluf’s eyebrows shot up. “For what? What will you negotiate? They will never agree to anything.”
“I know,” Hezekiah smiled. “But perhaps a little deception can save much bloodshed. You, I and Shaku shall call for parley. We shall bring the troops to the mouth of the Wadi and then we shall proceed and seek their leader. Shaku, prepare a flag.”
The other pairs of scouts returned and confirmed Shaku’s report. Peluf sent them back to wait for the main force by the mouth of the Wadi. Hezekiah, Peluf and Shaku entered the plain leaving the main force behind them. The threesome trotted slowly. Shaku carried a spear with a white cloth tied to its head.
Past the plain was an imposing cliff face. Sculpted into the cliff was an immense statue standing the height of ten men. The Pillar of Baal.
Peluf had never seen the Pillar before. An irrational desire to get off his horse and genuflect to the Baal overcame him. He looked at his King. Hezekiah’s face contorted. He seemed angry and fearful and desperate at the same time. Hezekiah paused for a moment and closed his eyes. When he opened them, Peluf could only see the anger that remained.
The priest of Baal noticed the delegation. He assembled two of his guards and they trotted forward on their horses. The two parties met midway between the large crowd of Baal-worshipers and the mouth of the Wadi.
“King Hezekiah,” the priest sneered. “I expected you to come charging through the Wadi, sword raised high, cutting us down like wheat under the scythe. I received reports of your carnage in Geihinom.”
“I may yet do that,” Hezekiah answered.
“So why do you seek parley?”
“You have assembled a powerful force, Priest. I wish to make my life easier.”
“I can believe that, though do not expect me to cooperate.”
“Do you know the history of the Pillar?” Hezekiah asked.
“The Pillar goes back to antiquity. It is one of the strongest gods. We serve and obey.”
“We are not sure when the Pillar first came into existence,” Hezekiah stated. “But I do know it was refurbished in the day of my ancestor, King Solomon, by one of his wives.”
“See,” the priest pointed at it gleefully, “even wise Solomon approved of the idols.”
“I don’t know what he approved or how wise he was on these matters,” Hezekiah whispered to Peluf.
“There is a secret of the power of the Pillar that has been handed down from father to son, since Solomon’s day,” Hezekiah declared to the priest.
“Is that why you would destroy it?” the priest asked.
“Yes, but not for the reasons you think.”
“Will you tell me the secret?” the priest questioned.
“Let us talk privately,” Hezekiah suggested.
“I shall speak with you only with my guards,” the priest answered.
“As you wish, though you may regret it.” Hezekiah dismounted but motioned to Peluf and Shaku to stay back.
Hezekiah walked slowly away from Peluf and Shaku. The priest walked with him. They were surrounded on either side by the priest’s guards.
“Your Majesty,” Peluf called.
“Stay,” Hezekiah answered. “This discussion is not for your ears.”
When they were out of earshot, Hezekiah spoke to the priest earnestly. He pointed at the Pillar. He pointed at the mouth of the Wadi where the concentrated force of his cavalry could be seen. He pointed at the afternoon sun creeping towards the mountains to the west.
The priest’s eyes opened wide. He looked at his guards with distaste. He nodded slowly towards Hezekiah and then, as if realizing his action stopped abruptly and stood straight. He excused himself from Hezekiah and walked back to his horse in a barely controlled run. His guards caught up with him, both of them with tight smiles on their faces. The priests and the guards galloped back to the Pillar, with the priest yelling and waving his hands at both guards.
Hezekiah walked calmly to his white horse with a smile on his face.
As he mounted, Peluf asked, “What did you say to them?”
“It’s a secret,” Hezekiah winked at him and turned his horse back to the Wadi. “Now we will see how long it lasts.”
From the mouth of the Wadi they saw the priest and his guards return to the mass of people and dismount. The priest took out a knife and stabbed one of the guards. The guard fell. The priest stabbed repeatedly. The other guard ran yelling towards the base of the Pillar. A crowd followed him. The priest, with blood on his hands, demanded an ax from a nearby farmer and chased the other guard. The entire mass of Baal-worshippers converged on the Pillar. Further away, yet still in the shadow of the Pillar, the dead guard remained alone in a pool of his own blood.
The surviving guard climbed the side of the Pillar with his sword in hand. Others followed. He climbed higher and higher until he reached the top of the Pillar’s head. More people climbed up the Pillar until the statue was covered with bodies like ants encasing an overripe fig just fallen from a tree.
The guard swung his sword and hacked at the sandstone. A piece of stone fell off, knocking a young man off the statue. Baal-worshipers stepped and climbed on the fallen body to get closer to the statue. Axes were swinging and rocks were crumbling. The falling rocks hurled many of the climbers to the ground. Those who remained clamored for space, flinging off neighboring climbers at will. The space was quickly filled by other eager climbers.
“What is happening?” Peluf asked Hezekiah.
“They are seeking gold,” Hezekiah answered.
More bodies piled up at the foot of the Pillar. The head, torso, arms and legs of the statue were no longer recognizable. Dust and rock joined the growing pyramid of carcasses. The hungry Baal-worshipers ate away at the mountain stone like a swarm of locust.
“What gold? I never heard of any gold there,” Peluf turned to Hezekiah.
“It is an ancient secret, handed down from King to King since the time of Solomon,” Hezekiah smirked.
“Truly?” Peluf’s mouth hung open.
”No,” Hezekiah answered. “I made it up. But it is curious that fervent Baal-worshipers would kill themselves and destroy their precious idol for it.”
“You told him there was gold behind the idol?”
“Yes. I revealed to them the ancient secret that one of Solomon’s wives, during the refurbishment of the Pillar, placed half of Solomon’s wealth, gold, silver, diamonds, rubies and endless precious stones behind the Pillar. That is what gave it special power and attraction. I told him I had come to take that wealth. That my troops were here to secure the area and the treasure before my engineers arrived to dig and scrape it out. I offered to share the treasure with him if he made way for us.”
“You lied.” Peluf accused.
“Yes, would you have preferred a frontal attack?”
“No. It was brilliant, my liege.” Peluf bowed low from the seat of his horse. “Should we attack now? We can clean up this mess easily ourselves.”
“No. Let us go home. We have caused enough damage for one day.”
As they departed, Peluf saw more bodies falling. The head of the Pillar was obliterated. In the light of the setting sun, something seemed to shine where the head had been. Peluf kept riding away.
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